Youth Venture Visits Growing Places: Part 2

Photo credit- Kristi Maloney

After our refreshing walk in the garden, Janet moved our meeting inside where Ann Yeagle, the executive director of Growing Places shared more information with us.

She discussed other indicators of food insecurity: race, poverty, unemployment, transportation and supermarket prices. We learned that the North Central,MA towns of Gardner, Lunenburg, Leominster, Fitchburg and Clinton are some of the most food insecure, unhealthy communities in the whole state. These are low income areas where often residents face a lack of transportation to get to grocery stores.  I understand that these towns are not the wealthiest towns in the state of MA, but I had no idea that some of the most food insecure communities in the whole state are right in my backyard!

In these towns, there is no lack of what are called “food swaps” – locations where fast food restaurants dominate providing cheap, processed, unhealthy foods. Where there are food deserts, that is where the food swaps pop up.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

I know that farmers are not farmers to “get rich quick”. But, I was surprised to learn that the farmer earns a mere eighteen cents on every dollar. This is due to how the food system works. There are a lot of steps for that healthy salad to make it to our plates. Here’s the breakdown: Step 1 – The farmer grows the food. Step 2 –  The food is picked by hand or machine. Step 3 –  The food must be packaged so that it is sustainable. Step 4 – The food is then transported (which leaves a carbon footprint.) Step 5 – The food is then sold in the grocery store, farmer’s market, food pantry or CSA finally reaching us – the consumer.

The way this food system operates, 40% of our food goes to waste. That’s nearly half of our food! This is, in part, because supermarkets must adhere to the sell by dates and food is thrown out due to policy. Most grocery stores don’t donate food because they’re unsure how to do it safely and without worrying about lawsuits. There are no federal laws for how food donations should be stored and transported or what condition the products should be in. These policies need to change.

The bottom line is that the food system is broken and this has a huge impact on food security. According to Ayn, the four components of food security are availability, access, utilization and sustainability. Growing Places focuses on food equity and justice – that is environmental sustainability in conjunction with healthy food access for all.

Their focused efforts to eliminate food insecurity will be making a positive impact in the area of Winchendon in particular. Growing Places recently received a $103, 281 three-year grant from Tufts Health Plan Foundation called the Winchendon Community Food Project for Healthy Aging. This grant will help Winchendon and the area to develop a “hub and spoke” food distribution model that will increase healthy food choices in Winchendon and surrounding towns for elder residents.

The closing of the IGA grocery store in Winchendon two years ago has made it extremely difficult for seniors to access transportation to other stores. The solution is to create a food hub with central distribution points and spokes that would be the different places to deliver healthy food. A business plan will be developed to leverage assets in the community for collaborative support by organizing food producers and institutions in order to get food to older adults. The transportation barrier will be addressed in the plan as well. A portion of the food would be available as healthy meal kits (think Blue Apron) for low-income people. I love this idea!

Photo by David Cicconi

Unfortunately, our visit with Growing Places had come to an end. I was encouraged that our meeting ended on this high note. I look forward to seeing how their hub and spoke model unfolds over this next year.

For my next post, I will focus on the Gardner High School Youth Venture Team called Community Garden. They have partnered with Growing Places and through their gardening efforts, they are eliminating food insecurity in their own community! Stay tuned for that!